If you're a senior citizen looking for travel discounts, the byword is: Question, question, question. Discounts are there, but it may take persistence with travel agents to dig them out. And ask for all the comparative information that helps you distinguish among excursion rates, weekend rates, and off-season rates. To help you sort through the maze of current offerings, here are some suggestions: Organizations offer discounts
One way to become eligible for discounts is to join a seniors organization. Members of the huge American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) get special rates on some auto rentals and hotels. For instance, Avis and National offer 40 percent off on normal time and mileage rates, or a flat rate of $33 and $32 a day (respectively) on a subcompact.
Most Best Western, Econo-Lodges, Holiday Inns, Howard Johnsons, Hospitality Internationals, Quality Internationals, and Rodeway Inns offer a 10 percent discount to AARP members, while La Quinta offers 20 percent off and Sheraton, 25 percent. Most Marriott hotels (75 percent of them) offer a 50 percent discount to AARP members.
Members must be at least 50 years old. For membership information, call (202) 872-4700 or write 1909 K Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20049. The cost is $5 a year per person or couple.
There is no bottom age limit to join the National Council of Senior Citizens, though most members are over 60. Some of the advantages: 25 percent off Avis rentals, 15 percent off Ramada Inns (25 percent on weekends). Perhaps of greatest interest to travelers is the council's unusual travel program to low-cost resorts in Europe. One example: a three-week trip to France for $1,399 (all inclusive, plus 15 percent sales tax). Membership costs $8 a year, $10 per couple. Write 925 15th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20005, or call (202) 347-8800.
Members of the National Association of Mature People (NAMP), for those 40 and over, get between 10 and 20 percent off at TraveLodge, La Quinta, Ramada, Best Western, Quality Inns, and Rodeway. To reach NAMP write PO Box 26792, Oklahoma City, Okla. 73126-0792, or call (405) 848-1832.
The primary purpose of these organizations is not to offer bargains to travelers, of course. But that's a nice dividend. In fact, the NAMP offers varied services (a retirement planning service, for instance), and the National Council of Senior Citizens lobbies for laws to benefit seniors. Tours offer special services
Tour operators that specialize in travel for seniors usually feature such unusual offerings as slower-paced traditional tours, short-term apartment rentals in European capitals (with a host in the complex to assist when needed), and educational vacations where classes are offered in conjunction with sightseeing.
AARP runs tours for its members: Its Learning Holidays cover subjects such as art history in Florence, antiques and auctions in London, and arts and crafts in Scandinavia. In addition to its traditional tour program there are ``regional vacations,'' coach tours of a small area, and ``extended vacations'' -- apartments in Paris, London, Budapest. AARP also offers cruises at discounted rates.
For travelers over 50, Grand Circle Travel of New York offers traditional escorted tours at a slower pace; it also has ``countryside tours'' of Europe that last three weeks and yet visit only three places. Participants stay in smaller country inns, and sightseeing is not included, though there is a tour director.
Grand Circle's apartment-rental program is very popular. You go for a minimum of two weeks; offerings include London; Paris; Florence, Italy; and the Costa del Sol. The latter is a particularly good deal: A studio, including air fare (but no meals or sightseeing), costs between $710 and $725 per person for the first week. Each additional week is $50. Grand Circle's number is (212) 688-5900.
Another agency that specializes in travel for seniors is Saga International Holidays Ltd. Situated in Boston, it is an American branch of a British company designed to provide tours for those 60 and over. Tours go to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Saga also offers long-term apartment rentals in the winter in Denia, Spain. Phone (617) 482-0085.
Yugotours of New York has a senior-citizen program in Yugoslavia; a stay at a resort for two weeks ranges from $929 to $1,179, all inclusive, double occupancy. Call (212) 563-2400, or write Yugotours, Empire State Building, 350 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. Books can be helpful
Two books on travel for seniors help answer just the kinds of questions that usually occur. One is ``The Discount Guide for Travelers over 55,'' by Caroline and Walter Weintz (E. P. Dutton). A revised edition is due out in August. This lists hotels all over the United States that offer senior discounts.
Another book, just out, is a compilation of useful general travel information. It's called ``Travel Easy,'' by Rosalind Massow. It is published by AARP. Travel-study programs
Just reading the Elderhostel catalog makes you feel like going somewhere. Elderhostel is a network of colleges, universities, and other educational organizations that offer inexpensive courses to adults 60 and over (a younger spouse may be included). Most offerings are in the US, but participants include Canada, Australia, Bermuda, Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Holland, India, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Scandinavia, and Spain. The cost is between $190 and $215; this includes dormitory-style lodging, meals, the SENIORSENIOR[ufmrk,161l] courses, and some extracurricular activities.
Course offerings are extensive and delightful: The colleges are in places of historic and scenic interest, and the selection of subjects sprightly. To get a copy of the spring catalog, write Elderhostel, 100 Boylston Street, Boston, Mass. 02116 or call (617) 426-8056.
A smaller, newer offshoot of Elderhostel is Interhostel, a two-week international travel-study program. Special emphasis is put on enabling participants to socialize with their contemporaries in the host country. The two-week programs cost $850 per person, plus air fare. Past participants have ranged in age from 50 to the late 80s. Universities are in many countries: Britain, Greece, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, among them.
For information, write the University of New Hampshire, Division of Continuing Education, Interhostel Program, Brook House, Durham, N.H. 03824. Hotel discounts
Some hotels offer senior discounts simply with proof of age. In many big chains, however, hotels are individually owned, so policies within a given chain may vary.
For those over 55, most Rodeway Inns, Econo-Lodges, and Best Westerns give a 10 percent discount; at Ramada Inns, it's 15 percent. Days Inn has its own September Days Club: For $10 per year for an individual or couple, you can join at any Days Inn and get a 10 percent discount off lodging, restaurant, and gift shop charges.
Most Holiday Inns offer a ``Freedom Rate'' of $29.95 for a single; for each additional person, add $5. You must be at least 65.
Most Hyatts offer a discount to seniors; it can be as high as 40 percent, depending on location and date. Red Carpet, Scottish Inns, and Masterhost offer 10 percent off to those over 60, while Sheraton offers 25 percent.
TraveLodge offers different rates at different places. You can get the same rate as AARP by joining the Golden Guest Club (for those over 55). Call 800-255-3050. Planes and trains
One of the best deals for seniors right now is the Eastern Airlines ``Get Up and Go Passport.'' For $1,299 you can take a trip each week within the US for a year. The primary holder must be 65 or over. (There are some restrictions; you must travel Monday through Thursday, for instance.) Another $200 will add the Caribbean, Mexico, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Costa Rica. Some hotels offer 50 percent off to ``Passport'' holders; these include Howard Johnsons, Holiday Inn, Hilton International, Vista International, Omni, and Marriott.
TWA has a similar program, called the VSP Senior Pass. Those 65 and over can purchase unlimited coach travel for a year for $1,199 (add $449 for transatlantic travel). Again, a companion pass can be purchased for the same price. There are some restrictions; you can't travel during peak holiday periods or weekends.
Amtrak offers discounts for seniors: 25 percent off round-trip fares if you're 65 or older. This fare is not applicable during peak dates and is ``comparable,'' a spokesman said, to the regular excursion rates. Amtrak also offers a ``family plan'': One adult pays full fare; spouse and children 12 to 21 pay half; and children 2 to 11 are quarter fare. This plan is good every day.
A popular plan not exclusively for seniors but which might work well for them is Amtrak's All Aboard America fare (on sale through Nov. 15). In this plan, the US is divided into three parts: Western, Central, and Eastern. A 30-day round trip taken within one region costs $150; this could take you from Montreal to Miami, for instance. Two adjoining regions cost $250; all three, $325. You are allowed a total of three stopovers.
Trailways and Greyhound offer a 10 percent discount off standard rates for those 65 and over. (Trailways makes it 15 percent for AARP members.) Bed and breakfast
A new organization, now in its second year, is the Evergreen Club, for those 50 and over. A division of American Bed & Breakfast, it is intended for those who would like to offer a room in their home to members at minimum cost. Hosts, in turn, can take advantage of this service when traveling themselves.
It is not a moneymaking operation (the honorarium is $10 for one person, $15 for a couple), nor is it merely a less expensive way of traveling; the emphasis is on meeting congenial people in one's own age group in various parts of the US.
It costs $20 a year to be a host member; this gets you a copy of the directory, plus quarterly updates. There are a limited number of associate memberships, for those who are unable to be hosts; these cost $35 a year.
Write to the club at PO Box 44094, Washington, D.C. 20026 and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. National parks
A Golden Age Passport, a free lifetime entrance permit to parks, monuments, and recreation areas administered by the US government, is available to those 62 and older. These may be obtained at all National Park Service and Forest Service headquarters and federally operated recreation areas, where they can be used. (You must appear in person.) It will admit the passport holder and a carload of accompanying passengers. This program is particularly attractive now that there is discussion of raising park users' fees. Outside the US
In most European countries, seniors can get a 50 percent discount on train fares; ages to qualify vary.
France's Carte Vermeil, a railway discount card, also gives reductions on entry to all museums. Get it from the French National Railroad office in New York or at railroad stations in France. Bottom age limit: 65 for men, 62 for women.
The Swiss Hotel Association has a brochure called ``Season for Seniors,'' listing hotels that offer discounts ranging between 10 and 30 percent to senior citizens. Copies may be obtained from the Swiss National Tourist Office, 608 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10020.